As the media pushes its picture of a world sunk in consumption, artists often fall into the role of mediators for the sale. This is nothing new, the roots of popular blues, jazz and country music spend some time in the muddy waters of the traveling Medicine Shows, and artists have always been called upon to provide the motivation for the populace to interact with their controlling interests. What has changed is the technology that makes this possible, and the reach these messages are able to achieve.
Within this there is still the subtle relationship that exists between the true artistic craftsperson and their art. For all of the throwaways created with the speed of today’s mass culture there are still those who spend time with the more delicate aspects of their art. James Blackshaw has emerged as a guitarist of considerable dexterity and intimacy; coming from punk rock roots he has turned his musical aptitude towards longer, more meditative modes with great success.
Thinking about what is necessary to bring the power of art into the creation of a more sustainable society we must come to understand the craftsmanship that underlies true expression. Blackshaw is part of a growing circle of artists whose appreciation for this relationship is bringing a brighter light to the creative scene and providing hope that the darkness on the horizon can give way to the sublimity of a well played song.
Through Nothingness, a Sound – An Interview with James Blackshaw, by David Metcalfe
How would you describe the transformative effect of music, in your experience? How does music transform the way that you think?
I think for me it’s something that I can’t describe. I think that’s actually one of the amazing things about playing or listening to music. Is its subconscious effect that happens that I can’t describe.
I think for me it’s probably the closest I get to a meditative state. There’s a couple of things at play, to actually play these pieces and for me it’s very blank, rather than it being particularly conducive to feeling one way or another, or about some kind of imagery or having some kind of narrative at play. It’s a kind of state of nothingness, I think that word would have for a lot of people a kind of negative connotation, whereas for me that’s quite a peaceful thing. It’s rare in our lives that we kind of shut out things to enter into that kind of state.
I’ve always found it incredibly cathartic; having to concentrate, it’s not always easy to do. Going through a process and reaching the other side of that. The best songs are quite lengthy.
Have the texts that you’ve referenced in your album titles and songs, like your album Cloud of Unknowing, influenced your understanding?
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve always found an interest in texts. I’m not particularly religiously inclined, although I’ve used quite a lot of, or you know…abused, ideas from different sort of quasi religious texts. I think that’s the thing, the Cloud of Unknowing is really something that a lot of people to some degree could benefit from reading.
I remember years a go, and really still am, interested in Zen Buddhism where its action through in-action. And the ideas in the Cloud of Unknowing Cloud of Unknowing is kind of reaching the divine or being close to God in the least proactive way I suppose. You know, Rather than being scholarly or you know so many other things. I just really appreciated those ideas and I think they hold some kind of relevance. In choosing those sort of titles I think In a kind of abstract way I feel like it goes beyond denominations or religions.
Robbie Basho and John Fahey are mentioned as some of your influences, Basho at least was playing with sort of Zen Buddhist ideas, has this affected your playing?
It’s changed over the years actually. I think when I initially approached the guitar, this will sound dumb, but I was approaching the guitar like a guitar player. I was listening to a lot of stuff like John Fahey, Robbie Basho, that kind of lead me into a lot of ethnic music. I really enjoy Gamelan, and Japanese Koto music, and Indian music, especially the Carnatic music from Southern India.
Through that I started to get into a lot of minimalism. People like Lamont Young, Philip Glass and Steve Reich have had a lot of influence. This idea of long form playing, and sustained drones, and the kind of transcendental experience that comes through that music you know. I think all of that stuff for me really connected, and in turn I think that stuff is in the guitar. Particularly Basho’s playing.
It’s all kind of connected, and I still really like that stuff. Especially Indian music, that has really changed the way Western composers think of music. It’s in other music; it does exist in early Western music too. That stuff is definitely quite interesting and quite important for me.
Debussy used eastern inspirations to great effect; there is also the aspect of alternate tunings available in those traditions. Have you experimented with these?
Someone like Debussy, as far as I know, didn’t really experiment with different tunings, but the way he played music was definitely colored by Gamelan. I’m definitely fascinated by different Western composers who played around with that like Lamont Young and Harry Parch.
I’ve never actually really played around with anything but the Western standard chromatic tuning. In a different system you can get kind of odd effects that can be really physically effective.
What is your experience of the physicality of music?
I think, for example, playing live there’s always going to be a lot of variables affecting the music. That frame of mind, it’s kind of strange to be static on the stage and just kind of playing guitar. I can feel the notes coming through the body of the guitar, and I can feel the vibrations of sound coming through the speakers and I respond with a kind of trance like state. It’s always kind of funny, I think it sounds more
I think that’s the great thing about music, to experience that you don’t need any kind of special… It’s still as much an immediate interaction.
Do you think the audience experiences this sense of meditation?
I think to some degree, I don’t think it needs to be complex anyway. I think you do sort of need to be in the right frame of mind, or sort of come at it in such a way that you’re open to that. People sort of come up and say I felt a certain way. It really varies from person to person, they’ll say I had an image in my head, or it made me think of someone I know, or it made me feel really sad or really happy, or I was almost falling asleep. I don’t mean that to be an insult, and they don’t. They said they have trouble sleeping and I got so into it
I don’t take it as an insult. I don’t mind what people take away from what I’m doing. I’m just sort of happy when people get something out of it. I think that most people, a lot of people, do experience similar things and that’s amazing.
Does this meditation change in a band setting
It varies actually, I mean I play with a regular group of musicians. A from the shows with them and the shows I play with Current 93 I still play most of my shows solo. I think to a degree I sort of become half aware of what other people are doing, I can’t say that detracts necessarily from that feeling, but it becomes less of an insular personal experience.
You have to be a little bit more aware of what’s going on, it doesn’t fall down entirely to you and there’s nothing, that’s actually one of my most favorite experience is kind of hearing . In a funny sort of way you can get in other peoples way, I have to stop myself from shutting out people. I need to concentrate and play things right, if I make a little mistake it can throw the rest of the band completely out.
Do the people that you work with have a similar meditative experience?
I can’t speak for everybody. David Tibet is a friend of mine and I think he feels it, and I know he get’s quite sort of feverish. I think it’s a similar experience. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a long conversation with them about that.
Has working with different people lead to more formalized composition?
For the new album, All is Falling, I’ve played around with arranging other instruments on previous albums, but the main difference is they were always sort of seeds of ideas before I’d record the guitar parts. They’re not improvised per se, but they were quite spontaneous.
All is Falling kind of allowed me to play around with compositions for strings or wind instruments. I could write a part either on the guitar or piano and transpose it for cello. Also having the line up for the groups that I play with has been stable now for the past year and a half or something. I didn’t actually have
In the past the additional instruments were definitely more just textural and a way to emphasis certain parts. Now it’s much more integral.
They’re all really great players. We’ve all really different sensibilities, the vast majority is stuff that I’ve written, but I’m not averse to working in parts improvised by other players. It’s been a lot of fun, but also more hasty to record.
It was really important to get the other stuff right or the whole thing wouldn’t work. Recording strings is not the easiest thing. We didn’t do it the way they record classical, miced live and played all at once. We did everything individually and separately, it gave us a little bit more control when we got around to editing it.
I went in and basically recorded all my guitar and the other players came in. We tried to have them play 2 at a time to have someone to play against, but other parts we recorded invidually. It definitely has it’s pros and cons. It meant things were easier to manipulate and work with.
I think if you can all be in the same room and record something it would be amazing. We didn’t really have time to do that. It’s going to be fun when we have our first live show and we’ll be playing for the first time to play the whole thing together. I’ve never played any of the material out live at all. It’s kind of trial by fire, we’re going and doing the whole 45 minutes in one long piece.
Was it composed as one long idea?
I never when I started writing, it wasn’t necessarily my idea from the outset to make one big long piece. As I was writing more and more I would write one little part of something and that hit an emotion or feeling.
Working with this sense of a beginning, a resolution to have these conventions of making a song, it can be a bit of a trap. It was quite nice to have the freedom to find something that felt really good and immediate and make a kind of chain of those ideas.
After I finished I was uncertain, I don’t think it’s going to be as immediate for people. A lot of it won’t make a lot of sense unless you sit through the entire 45 minutes straight. I’m not a crazy facist against downloading from iTunes or something, but I think there is a danger of things becoming available to quickly and I do think there is a danger of developing impatience.
We can’t wait to order a record anymore, or queue in a line to wait for something; we can’t sit through 5 minutes of music without some kind of payoff or watch a movie where you’re not bombarded. It wasn’t a deliberate reaction to that, but I think subconsciously I thought “Well you have to sit down and listen to this…”
Do you think that a longer form album like this changes the relationhip to the music?
Absolutely. It’s funny, I’m a really big Jim O’Rourke fan, he’s done recordings that wasn’t broken down into individual tracks. You can’t download any of his stuff from iTunes. I admire that.
David Tibet of Current 93 personalizes and does original artwork. I think it’s important to make that connection. It’s amazing the internet it really has changed things for everyone. It’s kind of inescapable now. Something physical right now is a really great thing.
In many ways I don’t know if I’d be doing what I’m doing if it wasn’t for the internet. It’s made things much easier, whereas a while ago especially in music things were very regionalized. Now it’s not like that at all. A lot of my best friends are in America or Germany. I think that’s the plus side of the internet, it outweighs the other. It is a little nerve wracking when you think wheres this going.
Do you think it’s the artist’s job to help people question the status quo?
I think there’s really no sense in bitching and complaining about stuff. For a lot of people I know making music right now, to gently challenge people’s perceptions. The people born now are inundated with media, growing up we experienced the shift so I think it’s important to maybe bring their experience of technology into question for people.
With so much technology do you think we’re moving back to an appreciation of acoustic and more organic music?
If you think, for example, I know I do it too, but a lot of people will listen to music on their lap top speakers. There’s a loss in quality, and people are paying attention to that. For music that has more sort of pure drones, or has that kind of quality to it. There’s a danger that people aren’t experience the music in the right way. If you take that away it get’s reduced to the most mechanistic part of it.
Music can create worlds for the listener. What sense of setting do you try to evoke your music?
I’m not sure, that’s an interesting question. I’ve never sort of really intended to, maybe by default. It’s very noticeable with some people, having this kind of extra layer that you maybe interpret the music in a certain way. I try to portray this feeling of nothingness in the music, so I think it some ways it’s very different than what say David Tibet does with Current 93. I think that’s wonderful, but I think that I’ve almost gotten to the point where I don’t want to do that at all, or do the opposite, where I don’t want to give anybody anything to latch onto.
Doing the artwork, the album is called All is Falling, which I kind of think is a pretty ambiguous phrase and there’s no individual track titles, and when it came to doing the artwork I decided to use a color field. I think color is very suggestive, but not necessarily in an obvious way. I don’t want anything that’s very suggestive on the cover.
When I got the album artwork back a friend came over and was like “oh what’s that” so I guess it actually really did, by not suggesting it suggested. I guess that goes back to the Cloud of Unknowing, action in inaction and all that stuff. It’s difficult not to have an agenda